'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever' - the Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'

As Spanish nationalists rattle their sabres, the Rock's Chief Minister tells Alistair Dawber the debate is over

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Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, has accused a leading member of the Spanish government of lying, as relations between the two governments fall to new lows.

José Manuel García-Margallo, the Spanish Foreign Minister and a member of the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) for which Gibraltar is a touchstone issue, said last week that his policy on the British territory, which is ultimately aimed at wresting back Spanish sovereignty of the territory, was “bearing fruit”.

Responding in an interview with The Independent, Mr Picardo has dismissed Mr Margallo’s comments, accusing the Foreign Minister in Madrid of lying to the Spanish people.

“I don’t see any fruit that has arisen other than, perhaps, some misguided view that... he has pursued the Spanish dogma in a way he is particularly proud of,” said Mr Picardo, a former barrister.

“If you look at Gibraltar’s position internationally – and perhaps these days the best way to assess success is to look at economic progress – our standing has been stellar, and this has come about in the period he has been minister in the Spanish administration with responsibility for matters relating to Gibraltar.

“If I were exercising my previous profession, I would put it to him in cross-examination that he is lying. He must be trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Spanish people: not only in the many things he says about Gibraltar, which are demonstrably untrue, but in suggesting that his attitude has somehow borne fruit... Who in Spain is better off because of the way Mr Margallo has dealt with Gibraltar?”

These are strong, undiplomatic, words, especially for a man as considered as Mr Picardo. But describing one of Spain’s most senior ministers as a liar is a mark of how desperate relations between the two sides have become.

He was talking in his spacious office at Number Six, The Convent, the home of the Gibraltar government in the centre of the Rock, as tourists outside snapped pictures of naval cannons at the entrance, and of the patrolling guardsman.

Since 2011, when both the current Gibraltar and Spanish governments were elected, a series of rows about the border and restrictions placed upon those travelling between the two countries, and others over Gibraltar’s territorial waters and how to police them, have poisoned the relationship.

A nadir was reached just over a week ago when a patrol boat belonging to Spain’s Servicio Vigilancia Aduanera, a state agency that investigates smuggling and drug trafficking, opened fire on a Gibraltarian pleasure boat. The Spanish said that they suspected the boat was carrying drugs and that they fired warning shots. At first the Spanish denied that the incident on 22 August had happened in Gibraltar’s waters, but later backtracked when a video of the incident emerged proving otherwise.

“There is no law enforcement excuse available,” said the chief minister. “Is there now a political direction to cause an incident in the slow month of August, which has been the preferred approach of the current Spanish government, in a way that might push other issues away from the front pages?”

Mr Picardo’s suggestion that the incident may have been politically motivated is not new, and follows a series of corruption scandals that have engulfed Spain’s PP over recent years.

“It is the third August in a row that we’ve seen Gibraltar hit the headlines,” he said, “and it’s the third August in a row that there are plenty of allegations of corruption against the [PP] that might otherwise have hit the front pages.”

Accusations of wrongdoing also flow the other way, and Madrid often accuses officials in Gibraltar of allowing the Rock to be used as a haven for smugglers, including those wanting to bring drugs into the EU. It is a charge that Mr Picardo rejects, adding that Gibraltar has complied with European Commission orders and that it has received a clean bill of health from Brussels.

But on the same day that The Independent met Mr Picardo, the mayor of Algeciras, the nearest big Spanish town, spoke to the Spanish press and accused Gibraltar’s officials of assisting traffickers.

It clearly rankles with the chief minister, who describes the comments as “pure and utter defamation moving into the area of demagoguery of the sort that we have seen in the Balkans and of the sort we saw just before the start of the Second World War, trying to cast the people of Gibraltar in a light that will create odium against us”.

Walking through Gibraltar, it is easy to see why nationalistic Spaniards such as Mr Margallo are riled – as many as 10,000 Spaniards a day cross into the British territory for work. Once across border, where because of the UK’s refusal to sign up to the Schengen Agreement, passports must be shown, visitors to Gibraltar immediately find themselves on Winston Churchill Avenue.

The Rock, as well as being British in terms of sovereignty, is also British in terms of mindset. The 32,000 residents have a Marks & Spencer, police in British uniforms walk the streets and pints of London Pride are served in the pubs.

Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain is always going to be difficult, but when the Madrid government is run by the PP, many of whose members are ardent in their view that the Rock is, was and always has been part of Spain, relations are especially tense.

With both the PP and Mr Picardo’s Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party facing elections, it does no political harm to ratchet up the rhetoric and wave the flag, but the situation is now so dire it is difficult to see any meaningful progress between the two sides.

Mr Picardo says he would welcome talks on greater cooperation with Spain, and says he sees a way for greater employment for Spaniards on the Rock, but for both him, and the likes of Mr Margallo, the issue of sovereignty is an absolute one.

“It’s unfortunate to have to express it is these ways, but we’re all human and therefore we’re all mortal,” he says. “Within their lifetimes they will not see any advances on sovereignty and any future generations of their families will not see any advances on sovereignty. Gibraltar is British and is going to stay British forever. It is simple, what it is about no that they don’t understand?

“It is game over on the issue of sovereignty in Gibraltar.”